Hazing Seattle’s new CTO

Michael Mattmiller, the new CTO of the City of Seattle.

Michael Mattmiller doesn’t seem like a man who fights cops. Mild-mannered and smart, one doesn’t envision him waging war against telecom companies. But we wanted to gauge his openness to these ideas.

Today Mayor Ed Murray named Mattmiller Seattle’s Chief Technology Officer, after a year-plus as a senior strategist at Microsoft, and seven years as a manager at PricewaterhouseCoopers in D.C. Starting June 23rd, he’ll be taking over from interim CTO Sabra Schneider.

It’s a move that will leave him in charge of Seattle’s information technology (IT) department and infrastructure, including “the city’s main data center, Seattle.gov website, The Seattle Channel, the city’s fiber network, the city’s data and telephone network, the Public Safety Radio network, cable franchises and technology oversight and planning,” according to Murray’s announcement.

If you’re unsure how to take that news, you’re not alone. When invited to interview him, I had very little idea what we’d talk about.

Sure, there’s the fact Seattle is a world-class tech hub, yet Kansas City has faster, cheaper Internet than us. A lot of cities do. There’s the fact that citywide, high-speed Internet has been championed by multiple mayors, yet still seems far away. The latest effort sputtered out earlier this year, which was also the last time Erin Devoto, Seattle’s previous CTO, was mentioned regularly in the news. Outside those subjects, I was stumped.

Flying blind, I therefore touched base with tech experts throughout the city, with backgrounds in both the private and public sector. The request: brainstorm some of the hardest questions possible for Mattmiller, the stuff he won’t want to touch with a ten-foot pole. It’s his first day. Let’s just haze him.

Was this callous, considering the guy hadn’t stepped into his new office at this point? Perhaps. Might City Hall think twice before granting me further access? Maybe.

But to be fair, Mattmiller handled himself well and was a sport throughout, even when he was clearly itching to hang up the call (“Sorry, phone problems on our end! Just email us the rest of your questions!”) And given his lack of public sector background, maybe it’s constructive to throw him into the deep end a bit.

Whatever the case, he’s got this going for him: His media interactions will only get easier from here on out.

LET’S DISCUSS THE POLICE

The Seattle Police Department’s “existing capacities to track, analyze and use data are, at best, weak.” This according to the federal monitor tasked with overseeing reforms at the department, as part of an agreement with the Department of Justice.

“The data produced by the IT Department has been error-ridden and inadequate,” their last report said, adding that it was “alarming” the department couldn’t “manage the risk of unconstitutional conduct” among officers (couldn’t track their pattern of misconduct), or provide relevant data to investigators and decisionmakers. In short, the police’s crappy IT undermines the Justice Department’s required reforms.

However, SPD’s main data systems aren’t influenced by the CTO’s office. The police operate an independent system. Does Mattmiller believe we should rethink that arrangement, given their poor performance in this area?

“Having not started yet, I’m focused on getting up to speed on my department,” said Mattmiller, in a phrase that will become familiar. “We’ll have to have a conversation at a later time, or maybe I’ll connect you with whoever’s portfolio that would fall in.”

But as the city’s IT chief, do you believe you should have a seat at the table in reforming the police’s IT?

“Certainly, I’d expect to weigh in on those conversations,” he said. “The SPD has their own IT organization, similar to other…um, projects. They have projects in place right now to look at those questions.”

LET’S DISCUSS POWERFUL TELECOMS

About this time last year, the city was attempting to bring low-cost, ultra-speed Internet to residential customers citywide. The idea was to gradually develop the unused fiber cable beneath Seattle, in a private-public partnership with a DC-based company named Gigabit Squared. In theory, this would increase Internet competition in the city, push down costs and drive quality up.

Gigabit Squared eventually fell short of its funding goals, stopped answering the city’s calls and dodged unpaid bills. Since then, Mayor Ed Murray’s mentioned not giving up on a municipal broadband network, but hasn’t provided many next steps.

During the last mayoral election, Mike McGinn called Murray “Comcast’s candidate.” This was tied to a report by the Washington Post that Murray took thousands in donations from the cable giant, allegedly in exchange for blocking the Gigabit Squared development. Murray denied this, but some have remained skeptical of his commitment to increasing Internet competition.

Whatever the case, developing the city’s fiber is a very expensive proposition, and will take serious commitment and economic wrangling. Mattmiller is tasked with much of this. Does he think it’s possible in the coming years? What are the biggest challenges?

“With the caveat that I haven’t started yet… we need to make sure the people have access to broadband, and it needs to be sufficiently fast, gigabit broadband and it needs to be affordably priced,” said Mattmiller. “We’re considering all the options on the table.”

Others speculate that Comcast’s largesse to Murray was tied to their television franchise agreement in Seattle, which is up for renewal in 2016. Murray has talked about extracting concessions from Comcast around this renewal, especially given the low marks for quality they receive in the city. The franchise agreement gives them their footing in the city’s Internet market.

“We can take steps to make sure competition is stronger in Seattle,” Murray said. “One step will be to evaluate our city’s relationship with Comcast.”

But what’s the city hoping to get in negotiations, which Mattmiller will now help lead? Federal policy disallows the city from regulating the details or pricing of Comcast’s internet plans, and the company has plenty of legal muscle.

“I’ve certainly seen the data, and understand people are not happy with the cable service they’re receiving,” said Mattmiller. “In negotiations, we need to make sure that Comcast is delivering the level of service that people are paying for. I still haven’t started yet and I’m getting up to speed, and I know I’ll be working with the mayor’s office on those questions.”

LET’S RECONSIDER YOUR ENTIRE JOB

Most people just use “the cloud” to store a few files virtually, accessible via the internet. In the business world, however, it’s revolutionizing everything.

For many companies and public institutions, cloud computing is reducing the need for big IT departments. Private data centers are expensive, and constrained in their storage and computing power. Cloud systems are increasingly cheap, and nearly unlimited in both. Private data centers are becoming obsolete to many companies, while the city examines new ways to store theirs around town. Mattmiller worked on cloud systems extensively at his last two jobs.

Seattle and many other cities have been slow to farm out their IT to cloud systems, however. There are complicated reasons for this, but one person speculated to us that it was because city employees are often protected by union agreements, and outsourcing their work is a tough sell.

An interesting theory. Mr. Mattmiller, care to wade into this obviously delicate topic, before meeting your staff?

“Again, not having looked extensively at our current operations, I’m not up to speed yet on the particular complications or alliances we’re working through,” said Mattmiller. “There could be some benefits of moving the city to the cloud – elasticity, reducing redundancy, some cost benefits in right circumstances.… But there’s a number of questions around operations needs, security needs, that you have to work through.”

LET’S DISCUSS THE CRATER-LIKE POTHOLE ON MY BLOCK

Actually, Mattmiller’s all over this sort of subject. Discussing it, the esprit de corps that brought him to City Hall creeps through.

He mentions an iPhone and Android app called Find It Fix It, which collects reports on potholes, illegally parked cars and more, relaying the info to the appropriate department. It’s a point of IT department pride, and many of the reviews are positive.

“Most people don’t come to City Hall, they come to Seattle.gov,” said Mattmiller. “We need to continue evolving our public presence on the web, in apps, and our public data platform. And the city’s IT is enabling the city’s workforce as well, so anything we can do to help them operate is very important.… I appreciate the passion in government, the good you can do.”

Behind all this is an enthusiasm for moving data efficiently — from department to department, between government and public, and ideally public and Internet provider. It’s an enthusiasm that could make him great at this job. Mattmiller didn’t even have his card key before we peppered him with complicated questions, but he said he looked forward to discussing these issues further once his legs were under him. Maybe one at a time, next time around.

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